Wednesday, 3 June 2009

A forest of fennel

As we left the Exmouth Kite Festival last year, I noticed a bank of wild fennel growing along the estuary embankment. This year I made sure to investigate further and was rewarded with a whole basket of wildcrafted green and bronze fennel stalks.

For me, fennel is associated with hot summer days spent watching boats on the coast. Usually this has been at Percuil, a tiny harbour on the Roseland peninsula in Cornwall where we used to launch and retrieve our small dinghy during summer holidays. Fennel would add a delightful soothing fragrance to the warm evening air. To find it growing on the Devon coastline was an added bonus.

I have to be honest, I have never used fennel in any structured way. Bronze fennel has always grown in my gardens, the delicate fronds occasionally finding their way into freshly baked fish dishes or omelettes. It was amongst the first herbal vinegars I made, producing a beautiful delicate pink colour to add to salad dressings. I have added the seeds to lemon balm liqueurs over the years in place of aniseed, but there my relationship with the herb ended.

Until last year.

Every so often, when I’m very tired, I get annoying bouts of heartburn. As with most ailments, I try to ignore it as much as possible in the hope it will grow tired of annoying me and go away. Last summer, Darcy Blue mentioned making a useful syrup of fennel and meadowsweet for heartburn, so I made some. Occasionally I remember to take it when I need to.

To be presented with such a wealth of herb made me realise I need to work with fennel much more closely, so last night was spent in the garden processing my harvest. Now I have bronze fennel macerating in cider vinegar, green fennel tincturing in vodka and another jar full of ground marjoram and chopped fennel in vodka waiting to be turned into a digestive liqueur for after-dinner delights. I may add some cumin and coriander seeds to add further digestive support.

Today I have been researching the properties of fennel. The aromatic and carminative uses were something I was aware of, but I was surprised to find it had galactagogic and anti-microbial properties useful in breaking up respiratory congestion.

Jim Macdonald describes the action of an aromatic herb as follows. “Aromatic herbs are those that contain strong smelling volatile essential oils. These oils tend to be anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and are “dispersive” in nature, which is to say that they help break up stagnation of all sorts. This can be respiratory congestion, intestinal gas, or even cluttered minds & cloudy thinking. Although not exclusively so, aromatics are often relaxants, acting perhaps as antispasmodics to help relieve tension and spasm, perhaps as calming nerviness to allay nervous stress and anxiety (and frequently both). Though it sounds strange to say, aromatic herbs are also very often stimulating, and some are both relaxant and stimulant

Aromatics often act as diuretics as well, as the volatile oils are processed by the kidneys, which find them irritating and increase urine output to “flush” them out of the body. This is what provides aromatic’s antimicrobial effect; the antiseptic oils in the urine bathe the tissues of the urinary system as they are swept out of the body.”

Jim also describes carminative as “aromatic herbs that contain volatile oils and initiate the expulsion of intestinal gas. They often relieve cramping as well.” Fennel seeds have always been used to help dispel gas in tiny babies. It was one of the major components in the ubiquitous “gripe water” given to colicky babies. My children never suffered with colic, so it wasn’t something I ever used.

A simple remedy for bloating is to chew fennel seeds or make a tea by pouring nearly boiling water over a teaspoonful of seeds and leave to steep for ten minutes in a covered container before straining and drinking.

Darcy Blue gave a “kitchen spice” remedy to support good digestive function as well as relieving discomfort on the Herbwifery Forum in 2008. She said to mix equal parts of cumin, coriander and fennel seeds, crush a teaspoonful and steep in hot water for ten minutes. She advised adding a touch of ginger and honey for added flavour.

There seem to be many different ways to use fennel for heartburn. While Darcey uses either a syrup (as mentioned before) or fennel honey pills, Jim favours a fennel tincture, which he gave to his wife when she was pregnant and suffered with heartburn.

Darcy shared how to make the honey pills with powdered herbs on the Herbwifery Forum last year. She described the process as “mix the powdered herbs, and a bit of marshmallow powder( helps it to make a dough) with a bit of honey - just enough to hold it together- and work into a stiff dough, then roll into pills. These can be taken fresh, or dehydrated in the oven with the light on, or in a dehydrator to be stored on the shelf.” Darcey uses the honey pills for indigestion or nausea if she is suffering in the middle of the night, popping the pills in her mouth to let them continue their work while she returns to sleep.

Tansy has also recently posted about making herbal honey pills on the "Not Dabbling in normal" blog. I am very tempted to try making some of my own soon.

I had never thought to use fennel with congestive respiratory conditions, but several herbalists suggested using fennel tea, or a mixture of fennel tea with marshmallow or mullein and rose to loosen a stagnant, hot, wet cough in a young child. It seems as if fennel has the extreme gentleness needed for babies and young children combined with a tenacity to move “stuck” infections as well as providing support and nourishment to a breastfeeding mother or an adult in digestive distress.

Fennel has also been cited in a list of herbs along with plantain, calendula, marshmallow and chamomile to heal a troubled gut or gastro-intestinal difficulties. Truly a herb to be valued!


Rowan said...

I didn't realise fennel had so many uses, I enjoy it as atea because I love the taste of aniseed. Bronze fennel grows in my garden more because it is such a beautiful, delicate plant than for any other reason. Like you I may well try making the honey pills.

Darcey Blue said...

Oh I love fennel so much, it was one of the first herbs I bought to add to my tea formulas, without really understanding it at first, but fell in love with it anyway. Such a good good friend to have. Now I think I need some kitchen spice tea myself!

Helen said...

And it is also dye! Giving a yellow .I have it in my dye garden but had not realised it was such tremendous medicinal herb. Thank you what an interesting post

Sarah Head said...

Thank you, Helen. To me, this is what blogging is all about - sharing information, knowledge, experience so everyone can benefit. When I retired and I can experiment with some herbal dyes, I shall be coming to you for help!

linda said...

I just wanted to tell you how much I love your blog! As to fennel, much of what you wrote is what my grandmother told me about anise. With colicky twins, this was a very important part of being a mother and we also use it for cough with phlegm.
I didn't realize that fennel was so powerful. Until now, I have just added it to bread (crushed and placed in the dough to rise). Thanks for revealing it beyond culinary use.

Sarah Head said...

Hi Linda

Thank you very much for your kind comments. I find I learn a great deal when I start doing research to put together a blog entry. I've been away working for the past week and a bit, but I've seen briar rose growing wild for the first time and "melancholy" thistles, so I shall be finding out more about these plants to blog about soon.

acommonwoman said...

Hi Herbwife. I've just found your amazing blog.I'm really impressed.
We have both bronze and green fennel in the garden, it seeds it's self everywhere. We use it as tea and chopped into salad leaves but also we use the seeds to help improve the milkyield from the goats. Just a teaspoonful in the dinner gets eaten readily.

Sarah Head said...

Hi "Acommonwoman". I was so sorry to hear about your cows. Your black one very much resembled the cow I grew up with. I hope you manage to find replacements. You might want to talk to my cousins, The Youngs at Kites Nest Farm in Broadway, Worcestershire. Their cows are all organic and very much loved and handreared. Have you tried goats rue for increasing your goat's milk yield? That's what it was originally meant for.